A Woman’s Independence: Fearing What I Ultimately Strive For

I live many contradictions. One in particular has been haunting me lately.

For as long as I can remember I have asserted my independence and been proud of it. I make my own personal decisions and take permission from no one. I have my own money. I own my own things.

I recently realized that I have only done this, however, under the guardianship of a male. The first 24 years of my life my guardian was my father. The following 17 years of my life my guardian was my husband.

Why do I call them guardians?

When I think of my father and of my now ex-husband I think: protection, stability, guidance, companionship, someone to trust in, someone to resort to or to fall back on…

Throughout my 41 years of male guardianship I never would have called my father or my ex-husband my guardians; especially not my ex-husband for the principle of it. He was though. They both were. I realize this now.

For the past year, since my divorce, I have been without guardianship.

My father is now an old man. He is in need of his children to take care of him. My father was my everything. I always always knew that if anything went wrong, my father would take care of it for me. This was not a hope. This was knowledge. I knew this as a matter of fact. I always always knew that if I needed guidance or counseling I could go to my father and that he was wise enough and knowledgeable enough about the world to alleviate my concerns or to point me in the right direction. More often than not I’d make my own decisions based on my own guidance. More often than not I’d solve my own problems without anyone’s help. But I was always safe in the knowledge that my father was there for me.

My husband is now my ex-husband. Regardless of the fact that our relationship did not work out, in the back of my mind I always felt that if I had any problems it was my husband’s responsibility to stand by me and protect me.

And always in the back of my mind I felt – no matter how financially independent I was – that it was my father’s and my ex-husband’s responsibility to provide me with financial stability.

That is how I was raised. That is what my culture tells me. That is what my religion – or my understanding of it – dictates.

“In Islam,” my father has always taught me, “a woman never need worry. There is always a man responsible for her. If not her father then her brother. If not her brother then her husband. If not her husband then ‘those in charge’ [أولي الأمر].”

Whether my father said this to me once or a million times, I am unaware. But this has been in the back of my head for as long as I can remember. He might as well have said it a million times. It has given me comfort. I felt I always had this safety net. And because I had a safety net I felt emboldened enough to assert my independence. I felt free enough to go out into the world and make mistakes. I had the courage to try new things, to be creative, to dream and to achieve my dreams.

I thought I was a strong, independent woman.

I’m not so sure of that now.

My self-perceived independence emboldened me to aspire to a healthier, happier life and to free myself from an unhappy marriage.

After all, I had my own successful career. I was making my own money. I was bearing much of the responsibility for myself and my four children.

Enter 2010.

Divorce.

I look under my feet.

My safety net is gone.

There is no husband. My father is old and ill. He is no longer capable of being there for me financially or for counsel and guidance.

I stand on the small piece of stable ground I have underneath me and I cannot move forward.

There’s a woman inside of me that I do not recognize from before. She’s not one of the alter-personalities I have come to know in myself over the years.

I can see this woman’s face. It is dark and thin and wrinkled. Her hair is grey and is in a state of disarray. Her thin-lipped mouth is open. Always open. It is distorted into a crooked vertically oval shape. And from it comes the most horrifying silent scream I have ever known to exist. She never closes her mouth. The silent scream is never-ending. I am the only one who hears her.

I find myself at the edge of a precipice. The very edge. Before me I see the ocean. Rolling waves spurt misty salt water I can almost feel gently touching my skin. Below me are ugly, jagged rocks. I can step backward and stabilize myself on well known ground. My hesitance could disorient me enough such that I lose my balance and fall to a hideous death. Or I can believe in myself. I’ve always known I can fly. Always. I can decide I don’t need that safety net any longer to take that bold step forward. I can believe in myself, spread my wings, close my eyes and have faith, and push myself off the precipice as I put my trust in myself and in the friendly breeze to take me places I’ve never been but have always dreamt of visiting.

Screaming Woman: be quiet. Calm yourself. Have faith. I will keep you safe. You will be protected. I will protect you. Do not look behind. Do not look below your feet. Look forward. And fly. Just fly.

16 comments

  1. It’s funny because I don’t know or understand what it means to depend on another person to take care of me. Man or woman for that matter. As far as I can remember, I’ve always had to take care of myself. I’ve had to troubleshoot my own problems. I’ve had to figure out what courses in college didn’t workout, how to juggle 3 jobs at a time and not flunk high school. Rarely has anyone worried about my stuff, my problems.

    So, I can’t relate much on the guardianship.

    When I was younger, I understood that Islam wanted women to be dependent on a man, whatever man, so she didn’t have to take care of herself in many ways. I looked for someone to fit that role, but they always failed. I think they failed because I wouldn’t allow them to take on that role. Instead, I would always pave the way, do everything and give them the credit at the end.

    I can never let myself fall and someone catch me. I DON’T believe anyone on this EARTH deserves to catch me if I fall. I have my own back, and that’s the way it always will be🙂

    I am working to release to God, tho. That’s where my focus is. I can fall back on Him, always.

    He’s my Wali and Wakeelee.

  2. I enjoy reading your bios. They are honest brutal at times. they speak to many of us. I especially like the one about removing the veil. I am not veiled but appreciate your honesty. as for guardianship I feel like you are talking to me. I haven’t divorced my husband yet only separated but I bear the financial responsibility of my 3 children and it is draining at times. I do feel empowered. I wish i was brave like you and make p my mind. Thanks I hope you are not annoyed with me for following you on twitter. Your silence makes me feel like I am imposing.

    1. Hi Mai,

      Of course I’m not annoyed by you or anyone else following me on Twitter. I try to respond to people who tweet to me whenever I can or if I feel I have something to say. Sometimes I just don’t have a reply. Please don’t take that as ignoring you. And please do continue to interact with me.

  3. Nadia,

    If I couldn’t relate I would not comment. Strange that this comes from a man who ended an unhappy and unfulfilled marriage of a similar length of time. I broke with my vows, religion and tradition. It was and is a big deal, even for me. However, I have never looked back at my decision; for me it was the right decision to make.

    I support your decision and will keep you in my thoughts. I am happier now and more fulfilled. I wish the same for you. One day, a long time ago, I wrote down 12 things I wanted to manifest in my life. I put the list away and did not look at it again. In time shorter than the sifting sands in an hour glass, I began to manifest these things in my life.

    Thank you for being the courage enough to share your thoughts.

    Barclay

  4. This post speaks volumes to me. I have always relied on other people; financially and other ways. Growing up I was not allowed to work nor have my own money. As an 18 yo my student’s pay went straight to my parents; I don’t even know how much it was. As an adult, I rely on my husband. The times that I have worked, I did not own my money. I don’t even know what my husband earns nor what he owes. I have never been good with money, and my husband takes advantage of that.

    I often wonder, if we were to divorce, I would need to work, but covering costs of daycare and before and after school car; I’d essentially be working to pay for these. So then I would probably rely on the government, living fortnight to fortnight, definitely not being able to afford holidays etc. And then my kids would prbably go on holidays with their father and have a blast, but then have to come home to old me with no money for treats.

    ANd then I think, had I taken responsibility for my life from the get go, I would not be in this position. If I had not relied on my husband, I would be working right now easily earning 100k plus. But my husband made sure I was a good little wife, having babies and cooking and cleaning. I spent 8 years at university, but not one single job to show for it. Pretty sad considering I am a lawyer (and have only ever done pro bono work). My mum drummed into my head that good muslim women looked after their homes. Good muslim women did study and get degrees, but then their place was in the home. Education is great, but only if you don’t use it to better yourself!

    In my mother’s generation, people didn’t like to educate THEIR women because it opened their eyes to the world. They preferred THEIR women to not question. They preferred THEIR women to only want marriage and children in their lives, nothing more. Travel is for men. Education is for men. And unfortunately, they did this with much ease because they had the Islamic scripture to back them up.

    It frightens me to think I would be alone for the first time in my life with only me to rely on. But it also excites me to no end. Making my own money and not feeling guilty spending it. Not feeling like I take all of the time. Being financially responsible for myself.

    I am finally going to use my degree. When I work, my husband complains because the housework takes a backseat. It makes me not want to work because I get tired of his complaining. But I think its time to take charge of my life and actually make something of myself.

  5. It is not just islam that raises us to believe in these securities. However, until I read your post I was blind also to this. As an Australian female I have always considered myself fiercely independent (others referred to it as stubborn) & pride myself for standing up for womens rights everywhere. It appears I do not practice what I preach. Your blog clarified something I have felt but could not express for a long time. In an unhappy marriage I have remained for the sake of my sons happiness having come from a “broken home” myself & understanding the agony it creates (although in an act of defiance I removed my wedding ring some 8 mths ago to reclaim my independence) The truth you revealed to me today that my feigned independence is from a standing of fear. Financially & emotionally my husband is still my safety net. And as I grapple with my daily discontent I am more often than not guided by my confidants rather than having the courage to make my own decisions.
    Thank you Nadia for putting into words what I had been only feeling. Now as a fiercely independent woman if I could only find the courage to make my own path regardless of others perceptions. Perhaps this is what I should be teaching my son.

    1. You write profound words, Jasz. That’s all I can say. May you find the best path for you.

      I won’t encourage you to make a decision to divorce. I know nothing about your personal situation. But I can tell you that my parents divorced when I was 15 and I was determined never to put my own children through what we had to go through. After years of trying to make my marriage work, I decided that it was better and healthier for my children to have a happy mama raise them than to have an unhappy mama. I’m very lucky, though. My ex-husband is a good man and we get along. We made sure that we had an amicable divorce and that the kids always know that THEY are the priority. So I’m not having to put my kids through the divorce drama that me and my brothers and sister went through (that lasts until this day, believe it or not). My drama is just my own personal drama of trying to make my own life work as an independent woman. And it’s not easy. But I’m determined to make it work.

      May you also find the right way for you.

    2. jasz: you write about your life as if it were mine. I also do not practice what I preach. I often ask myself; do I preach because I know what it feels like and therefore I do it legitimately? And it dawns on me that most women who are strong supporters of women’s rights are women who have been through their own battles.

      Maybe I need to teach my girls to be independent and strong by being independent and strong myself. Perhaps what they need is a strong mother who is happy rather than a mother who is unhappy but keeps her mouth shut to keep the peace for fear or bringing them up in a ‘broken’ family.

      I draw courage from your words.

      From a fellow aussie

  6. You hit a nerve that we will all understand. Learning to fly solo is one of the hardest lessons. I’ve posted this to my FB page so that my friends all over the world can read it. I’ve gone through the divorce stage (without the kids) and more recently widowhood with kids after the death of my second husband. Even as a second experience, it isn’t easy. You will be fine, I’m sure. I’m one of your many Twitter followers and always love your thoughtful and humorous posts. All the best.

    1. Dear Maryanne,

      Thank you for your words. They make me think: I really need to stop feeling sorry for myself and get on with it. The world has not ended. I know how to do this. I’ve done it for years to begin with. And just get on with it.

      One thing I’ve learned is that the support of women – even when it’s just words from women – can make a world of difference. So thank you.

  7. Nadia, I remember that, when you were in Barcelona at the en of May, I told you things about my generation–what we did when I was young–and you said that way was like your generation in Egypt. Now your reflections remind me of women in my country when I was young, when most of them were first protected and financially supported by their fathers and later by their husbands. I do not think it is only a matter of religion, or maybe it is, but not only of Islam. In my case, when I finished the university, I got married and for seventeen years devoted exclusively to my family. I started flying and being myself in my forties, and it was not easy, because it was too late for me to come back to the world of biology. I had always liked writing, science and language, and I found a way to escape my routine and male-dependence putting these subjects together. There is a part of me, however, that has never dared to fly. I admire women that, like you –and my daughters– have decided to open their wings completely and have flown, soared, fluttered, glided, hovered, and even looped.

    Best wishes in your flight, Mercè

  8. You can do it, just take a deep breath, have faith and let go. After all, safety nets are just an illusion. I’ve been in sort of the same sitution with regard to my father, who has always provided a safety net for me, but recently I realized that safety nets are really a state of mind, we try to convince ourselves that something or someone provides security, but in reality, nobody does. But at the same time, I really believe that there’s always a way out, that no matter how difficult it gets, God somehow sorts it out in the end. And by the way, you’ve been flying all along, it’s just that you never realized it, or just started realizing it now. There never was a safety net, you’ve been flying under your own power for years, and you’ve been doing very well too!!! Don’t freak out, there’s nothing new about this, you’ve done it before and can do it now, you have the skills and experience.

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